Kyoto’s Machiya Cafes

April 14, 2008

by Akari Mori; Chisato Yuzawa

Nostalgic & New:

Kyoto’s Machiya Cafes

What are Machiya?

Machiya are traditional Japanese buildings which were designed to house the residences and workplaces of merchants and artisans. These wooden townhouses, with their latticed windows and entryways, first appeared centuries ago, even before the Edo period (1603-1867). There used be many machiya around Japan, but during World War II many of them were burned or broken. Fortunately, Kyoto escaped such damage during the war, so there were still many distinctive machiya buildings in the city. People called them “Kyo-machiya” and as time passed, they came to be regarded as one of the traditional buildings which characterize the ancient city of Kyoto.

However, owing to the development of the city, the number of machiya decreased in Kyoto. It is said that about 50,000 wooden structures including many Kyo-Machiya, were taken down during the single decade from 1978~1988.

In response, several local NGOs and the Kyoto City Government have been working on a campaign for saving machiya. Today, there are about 28,000 Machiya buildings in Kyoto, but some of them are not used and about 500 are destroyed annually. Nonetheless, a citizens’ movement to revitalize machiya is occurring. Now, the number of renovated machiya is about 800 and steadily rising, about 70 percent of which have become a restaurant or café. The city even offers subsidies for renovations.

What are Machiya Cafés?

Many of Kyoto’s old-fashioned machiya are remodeled into cafés. These shops have been loved for about 20 years now and are continually gaining in popularity. Although they are renovated for safety and comfort, most look just as they did in the old days, full of Japanese traditions and styles. Some machiya have adopted modern technology (new electrical systems, air conditioning and heating, etc.). It is not rare that the owner of a café takes part in the remodeling because they are very particular about the way they design, open and run a café. There are many kinds of machiya cafés — some where we can read books, buy original items of Kyoto, or even stay overnight. They truly represent the new face of the Japanese old style. Many machiya cafés leave in place such features as tatami mats, low Japanese-style desks and lamps. They are also representative in the drinks and dishes they serve. There may be green tea poured from a Kyoto ceramic teapot which is often used for tea ceremony. Many dishes use Kyoto traditional vegetables(Kyo yasai)such as eggplant, pumpkin, green onion and tomato. These cafés also serve many kinds of sweets; like homemade cakes, parfaits, or arranged waffles. Above all sweets, the most popular menu items are the ones which use “Uji-Cha” (famous green tea made in Kyoto) and “Shisatama-Dango” (Japanese rice-flour dumplings).

Why Machiya cafés are popular

Machiya cafés are really popular among Japanese people and foreign visitors, regardless of age or gender. Why do people love to drink coffee or tea and enjoy dishes in a machiya café? The reason: they are able to relax and feel nostalgic for the old days. They can also feel the seasons and heal by the natural sunlight and pleasant cool breeze. Machiya cafés are especially loved by middle-aged women and tourists from other areas. Today, they are one of the important elements of sightseeing in Kyoto.

Interview: Café Bibliotic Hello!

Walking toward the north from the wide road Oike for few minutes, we could found an exotic building at Nijo/Yanaginobanba. But once we looked in, we could notice that the building is a machiya — and a café.

“I wanted to open a snug café which has a tall bookshelf reaching to the ceiling, a fireplace and a big table surrounded by many people” said Mitsunari Koyama, the owner of the café.

Originally, Koyama didn’t focus on machiya, but gradually he came to realize that the best (in fact the only) type of building to realize his dream was the machiya. He remodeled such a townhouse and opened his shop six years ago. He named the café “Café Bibliotic Hello!” “Bibliotic” is his coinage which parodies the French word meaning library. Then, “Hello!” means not only greeting, but also relates to the famous Japanese phrase“Ichi-go Ichi-e”, which means “one opportunity, one encounter”. Koyama also said, “I’m very happy if my customers feel a positive resonance with my ideal space.”

All of the books in the café are from his collection, and many of them are picture books. So, everyone can enjoy looking through them. Recently, he expanded the store and opened a bakery and a gallery for customers to enjoy their precious time more.

As Koyama explained, “When I traveled in Western countries, I could enjoy precious times in cafés. So I felt I wanted to make such a place in Kyoto for visitors from other countries to create a great memory for them in Japan.”


Cafe Bibliotic Hello

Kyoto: Nijo/Yanaginobanba. [On Nijo Street about 7 blocks east of Karasuma Blvd.]

Open noon-11pm (Last Order) daily.

Tel: 075-231-8625

Leave A Comment…